I often hear from students that they find academic writing a frustrating, boring chore–albeit a chore that produces much anxiety and stress. (Could procrastination have something to do with that?)
Oddly, the same students say they enjoy “creative” writing, and their best efforts in my classes seem to arise when their creativity is stimulated by a quirky assignment or a classmate’s question, by an event in the world outside or a close friend’s predicament. Yet even these best efforts are riddled with errors in GUMS: grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling.
When the students object to my pointing this out–doesn’t “creative” writing mean not bothering about all that stuff, and don’t “real” writers have editors who fix all of the mistakes–I say no to the first question, and to the second, I answer, not unless you are John Steinbeck or the equivalent, who made enough money for his editor, Pascal Covici, that Covici accepted manuscripts full of Steinbeck’s idiosyncratic spelling and persistent confusion of “its” and “it’s.”
You are not Steinbeck, I remind them, and neither am I, and if we want people to publish our work (or professors to grade it with more than a big fat D), we’d better get it right. Creative does not mean sloppy, and creativity is no excuse for willful ignorance.
If you don’t know English grammar and usage, if your grasp of mechanics and spelling is shaky, you know what to do. Get a good handbook and learn how to use it. Study the work of writers of excellence. Try to figure out how they do it. Take their paragraphs and sentences apart. Be a surgeon and a pathologist and an archaeologist and a detective of the writing that has met the standards and been deemed “good.”
Why this verb and not another? What makes this sentence go? When should I use an adjective or adverb? Is this a subordinate clause? How do hyphens connect, while dashes separate? What are the rules about commas, and how do I know when I may suspend a rule and when I absolutely mustn’t? Semicolons, brackets, ellipses, colons: what are these things for?
And we haven’t even mentioned WORDS.
What I hope for this blog is that it will give me the chance to share what I learn with my students (and from them), and that people will chime in with ideas and tactics, strategies and exercises that have worked for them or that they’d like to try. Maybe other writers of all abilities will find something helpful on these pages and will feel motivated to share. Perhaps I can demystify some of the writing process and maybe make it less onerous for some.
And let’s all remember that writing is a conversation between the writer and the reader.
So, let’s start the conversation going . . .